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Public Spaces

Are public spaces really public when not everybody can use them?

All around DC there are structures designed for the public that aren't actually very pleasant or easy to use, like dog ears on ledges, third armrests through the middle of public benches, and ridges in common seating areas. These things are there for a reason, but do they actually limit people's ability to live in the environment around them?

All photos by the author.

In July, well-known radio producer Roman Mars invited authors Gordan Savicic and Selena Savic onto his podcast, 99% invisible. Savicic and Savic co-edited a book called Unpleasant Design, which looks at the idea that while some things are built with a purpose that might seem reasonable-- for example, third armrests on benches that keep people from sleeping on them and therefore giving more people space to sit-- accomplish a greater effect of shaping city environments and how citizens interact with them without those citizens' consent.

There are examples in cities across the world. For example, in Europe, some store owners deter teens from loitering out front by playing classical music or high-frequency sounds, or using pink lighting to make pimples on their face stand out (particularly cruel!).

Should our cities ban skateboarding? Should they ban homelessness?

In most instances, skateboarding is legal unless posted otherwise. But like many other cities, DC has incorporated "dog ears" to deter skaters from using public spaces. This is de facto prohibition, and even though it's subtle, it sends a clear message that skating is not particularly welcome.

Many people would argue that skateboarding is one of this country's longstanding forms of expressionit makes space more inviting, and it gives people a reason to come and sit and look. If you value skateboarding as a way of breathing life into a city, public design that bars people from doing it is problematic.

As you can see, this ledge restricts skating.

Beyond skateboarding, there are also designs that stop people from doing more basic, fundamental things. In fact, while DC is known for its expansive "public" spaces like the National Mall, Smithsonian Museums, and numerous parks and squares, some people might tell you that these places really aren't very public at all.

DC has a homeless crisis, with the homeless population having risen 30 percent in the last year. And while Mayor Muriel Bowser has stated that combating homelessness will be a staple of her tenure, those who are left out have to exist somewhere. More likely than not, the aforementioned public spaces make the most sense.

But check out these public benches and how they keep people—homeless or not&mdashl from comfortably and freely using them:

The two armrests on the end of the bench would only allow a very short person to lie down, but the third armrest through the middle makes it impossible for most.

The ridges on this one aren't conducive to lying down and it is curved.

Unpleasant design negates usable public space, which is the hallmark of a thriving city

To be fair, unpleasant design, as a whole, is well intentioned. The risk in any public space is that a few people acting out can make the space unusable to everybody.

When it comes to the dog ears on ledges, skateboarding can damage property and possibly put people in harm's way, and lying down uses up more park bench space so fewer people can sit. In those ways, unpleasant design can make public space more inviting.

But where is the line? Who decides what should be forbidden and what shouldn't? Why not tell someone that if they want to eat lunch, they need to go to a restaurant rather than sit and eat in the park? Or that if they want to read, they need to go to a library rather than sit and do it on a public bench?

Skateboarding is an art form and organic culture in its own right, and limiting skateboarders use of public space is counterintuitive to why public space exists—to bring people together and allow cultures to thrive.

And regarding the homeless, it is entirely unfair to restrict access to an individual who literally has nowhere else to go. It is especially unfair when design restricts access to the very harmless activity of lying down.

So at what point does restricting human activity take the "public" out of public space? I'd say that it's when something gets built into the environment; at that point, it becomes non-negotiable. Laws can restrict activities, but you can protest and repeal those.

We should be mindful of what we build, what effect it has, and on whom If you restrict people's ability to use public space too much, then nobody goes there at all. I would argue that if space is truly public, then people on skateboards or people without homes are as entitled to use it as anyone else.

Public Spaces

Ten small parks that prove tiny is terrific

Georgetown Day School recently downsized its plans for a mixed-use project in Tenleytown. Aside from cutting 50 units of housing, the developers also canceled plans for a pocket park. We called that a loss, but some skeptics said it wasn't a big deal because the park would have been very small. But when it comes to parks, quality is way more important than size. These 10 "teacup parks" show that.

Paley Park in Manhattan. Photo by Mike Boucher on Flickr.

In its original proposal, GDS offered to close a slip lane between Wisconsin Avenue and 42nd Street and create a pocket park of roughly 7400 square feet. The school offered a few designs, including a splash pad, a skatepark, and a demonstration garden. With the reduction in size, GDS will still close the slip lane for safety reasons, but it will just be another grass triangle.

Opponents of the GDS deal claimed that this small park was just too small, unlike what's typical in Ward 3. Fort Reno, for example, is 33 acres, or 1.5 million square feet.

But little parks can be everything for building engaging streets, something Tenleytown does not have. Here are 10 great park and plazas less than 15,000 square feet that make their neighborhoods a lot better.

Here are 10 great park and plazas that take up less than 15,000 square feet yet still make their neighborhoods a lot better.

1. Paley Park, New York City

Paley Park. Photo by Matthew Blackburn on Flickr.

If you ask a planner for an example of a pocket park, they'll probably bring up Paley Park. At 4200 square feet, it's smaller than the Ellicott Park would have been. But a water feature, movable seating, and a few delicate trees create a beloved retreat in one of the busiest, loudest parts of Manhattan.

2. Bethesda Row Fountain

Just a slightly thicker street corner. Photo by ehpien on Flickr.

Because of the lively nearby streets, this tiny triangle of land in Bethesda has been swamped since it opened in 2000, despite being a mere 1500 square feet.

3. Columbia Heights Civic Plaza

The plaza hosts frequent events. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Designed by ZGF architects, buildings frame this 12,000 square foot plaza, which is just as lively hosting public events or a farmers market as it is demonstrations or a children's splash park.

The design screens the play area from traffic with adult benches. Photo by Bill McNeal on Flickr.

4. Parkman Triangle, Los Angeles

Parkman Triangle. Image from Google Maps

Residents turned a leftover sliver of concrete in Silver Lake into this 2000 square foot parklet, where desert plants shield seating from traffic.

5. Boyd-Jackson Park, Takoma Park

Boy-Jackson Park. Image from Google Streetview

A small neighborhood park, this fits play structures and a field into less than 8,000 square feet. It's hardly the National Mall, but it's still incredibly useful and convenient for its neighborhood.

6. Fowler Square, Brooklyn, New York

Fowler Square's temporary configuration. Image Courtesy NYC DOT.

New York's Department of Transportation connected a little island by transferring a single block from cars to pedestrians to create an 8,400 square foot plaza. Although drivers originally opposed it, it has become the highest-rated of New York's plazas and enough of a neighborhood amenity to make the change permanent.

POPS Skatepark, Philadelphia

Photo by Bill Benzon on Flickr.

One corner of a neighborhood park, this skate park's small, 6,000 square foot size works well for inexperienced, younger skateboarders.

8. Fox and Laurel Park and Community Garden, Los Angeles

Fox-Laurel Park. Image from Google Streetview.

In a space just twice the Ellicot Park lot (15,000), surrounded by a storage facility, the city fit two playgrounds, native plantings, and a community garden.

9. This private park at Brown University

Pocket Park at Brown. Image from Google Streetview.

This quiet space between academic buildings and houses takes up 5,500 square feet, but manages to pack in a secluded urban room.

10. Unnamed Triangle (Reservation 265)

Is this what they call Tactical Urbanism? Image from Google Streetview.

Some residents took a play set out to one of DC's many leftover grass triangles. It's not pretty, and probably not legal, but it's a lot more use than most of them get.

Small can still be great

Whether or not Ellicott Street gets a park, there many neighborhoods in DC that would benefit from a few pocket parks. Meanwhile, Tenleytown is trying to revamp its public spaces through the Main Street program. These examples show that it's foolish to get hung up on the size of a discrete strip of land. With busy nearby streets and good design, you can squeeze a lot of life into a modest space.

Of course, this is just what I could come up with from memory and asking a few people. There are tons of great public spaces of this size. Can you think of any that caught your eye?

Public Spaces

"Skate plazas" can invigorate public space

Montgomery County's newest skate park in White Oak doesn't have any skaters, due to poor design and an isolated location. A "skate plaza" in the center of the community could give skaters and non-skaters alike a better place to hang out.

Paine's Park, a "skate plaza" in Philadelphia. Photo by JacGebhardt on Flickr.

The 6,000-square-foot White Oak skate spot, a sort of mini-skate park, is located at at the end of a cul-de-sac off of Lockwood Drive next to a new recreation center, both of which opened in the summer of 2012. Built by the county's Department of Recreation, the facilities cost $22 million to build, a very small portion of which went to the skate spot.

The recreation center is usually busy, along with the basketball courts and soccer fields. But I've dropped by the skate park at least dozen times this year, at different times of day, on different days of the week, in winter, spring, and summer. And I've never seen anyone using the skate spot.

"There's no flow"

28-year-old Mike Rious of Colesville visited the skate spot a few times, but he quickly got frustrated with it. Instead, he goes to the Woodside skate spot in Silver Spring or to skate parks in Prince George's County. "It seems as though no skatepark designers or anyone with knowledge of skateboarding was consulted before putting it together," he wrote in an email.

The White Oak skate spot is always empty. Photo by the author.

The skate spot is laid out in a way that makes skating almost impossible. I showed some photos of it to my friend Jordan Block, an urban designer and skater who used to work for Franklin's Paine Skatepark Fund, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that builds skate parks. "There's no flow," he explains.

Normally, skaters would do a trick on one side, then go over to the other side to do another one, building up momentum along the way. In order to do that, you need a clear, straight path with no obstructions. But officials at the Department of Recreation simply dropped pieces like ramps and rails around the site randomly. As a result, Block says, there's always something in the way.

There are also safety issues. The skate park uses prefabricated modular pieces bought off the rack. Skateboarding advocates like Skaters for Public Skateparks discourage using them instead of permanent, concrete pieces, because prefab fixtures often deteriorate faster than permanent ones, and they have exposed seams that can trip and injure skaters.

The skate spot's location is an issue as well. In 2008, county planners noted that 10,000 people live within a 3/4-mile of the site. But the street network is so disconnected that someone living on Carriage House Way, 1,000 feet away as the crow flies, would have to travel over a mile to reach the recreation center.

"If I were younger and didn't have my own transportation," wrote Rious, "I would probably still be skating the same places I had before these skate spots were built."

Location, design affect skate spot's use

Compare this to the Woodside skate spot, which the parks department built itself after consulting with local skaters. It also has prefab fixtures, but they were made flush with the ground, reducing tripping hazards. And it's in downtown Silver Spring, a short walk from buses and Metro, places to eat, and other hangouts. Not only is the Woodside skate spot popular with skaters, but it's become such a fixture in the local skating community that they even hold barbeques there.

Skaters at the Woodside skate spot in 2010. Photo by Chip Py.

In its current form, the White Oak skate spot is basically unusable. We could rebuild it to be safer and more attractive to skaters, but the location remains a problem. What if we moved the skate spot to the center of White Oak, instead of the fringe, and made it a destination for skaters and the larger community as well?

Skateboarding is a social activity, often drawing spectators. In downtown Silver Spring, crowds of people formed to watch skaters in Veterans Plaza and on Ellsworth Drive before the county banned it.

A redeveloped White Oak Shopping Center could be home to a two-acre park. Photo by the author.

Last month, the Montgomery County Planning Board approved the Science Gateway plan, which envisions creating a research and technology hub in White Oak. Planners also envision turning the run-down White Oak Shopping Center at New Hampshire Avenue and Lockwood Drive into a "town center" with shops and housing in taller buildings around a two-acre park.

That park would be a great location for a skate spot: it's across the street from the White Oak Transit Center, an important bus terminal, and is a short distance from thousands of homes and apartments, along with shops, restaurants, and the Food and Drug Administration campus. This is an accessible location for skaters, but it's also surrounded by a good mix of uses that could make it a unique public draw.

"Skate plazas" bring skaters to the center

Communities around the country are building so-called "skate plazas," a cross between a public plaza and a skate park. Franklin's Paine, where my friend used to work, opened a skate plaza in Philadelphia last May called Paine's Park. Designers call it a "not just a skatepark...a park for all that's made to skate."

Paine's Park. Photo by CJD on Flickr.

To the naked eye, Paine's Park looks like an ordinary plaza: there are benches, stairs, ramps, and rails. These all happen to be things skaters like to use, but here they won't get chased away for doing so. And everything's made from cast-in-place concrete, which can take lots of abuse and are still affordable.

Planners often build skate plazas alongside other uses, inviting skaters into the center of the community. Portland is building a big skate plaza in the middle of downtown. The Lafayette Park Skate Plaza in Los Angeles is part of a larger park complex with a library, amphitheatre, and even food carts.

These are spaces you'd go even if you weren't skating, and non-skaters can hang out in skate plazas as well, so long as they don't mind the thumps of skate trucks on concrete. But if skateboarding ceased to exist tomorrow, the community would still have a great public space.

Skate plazas aren't just better for skaters. They create more interesting, attractive public spaces for everyone. It's clear that this thinking went into the White Oak skate spot, which is next to a recreation center, but the design of the skate spot and its isolated location sends a message to skaters that they should be kept out of sight.

Montgomery County wants White Oak to become an innovative urban community. What better way to do so than by embracing the athleticism and spectacle of skateboarding?

Public Spaces

Arlington park shows that skaters can share public space

If you're seeking a serene natural retreat, a skate park is probably the last place you would look. But a few years ago Arlington built a skate park that welcomes all visitors, not just those with skateboards.

Photo by thecourtyard on Flickr.

A few weeks ago, I visited Powhatan Springs Park, also known as the "skate park rain garden." Designed by local architecture firms the Kerns Group and Oculus, it combines a skate park with a rain garden and a soccer field, creating a space that welcomes all visitors.

It's no surprise that the project was given an award for "innovative excellence" by the Maryland and Potomac Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects in 2005.

Powhatan Springs is located on busy Wilson Boulevard in Dominion Hills, a neighborhood at the far western tip of Arlington. It's a diverse area with a mix of single-family homes and apartments; Eden Center, the Vietnamese shopping mall, is a mile away. The park is well-served by bus and trails, ensuring a steady stream of visitors.

As a result, the park has to accommodate a variety of uses. Along Wilson Boulevard there's a concrete skate park with a bowl that mimics a swimming pool. Next to it is a soccer field with spectator seating. Behind them is a small parking lot and an interactive rain garden, which collects and absorbs stormwater rather than dumping it into a drainage system.

Grasses by thecourtyard, on Flickr

All the concrete in the skate park can be hard on the eyes and amplifies sound. Meanwhile, the rain garden is filled with lush native grasses.

Water Culvert by thecourtyard, on Flickr

This culvert carries water down into Four Mile Run, while an adjacent path connects the park to the surrounding neighborhood and a nearby elementary school.

Water Pump by thecourtyard, on Flickr

The rain garden has a pump where kids can play with water. It was meant to be a "sort of unprogrammed, unstructured [space] where you created your own fun," in the words of project manager Robert Capper. The pump wasn't working on the hot, dry day that I visited, but presumably it's quite popular the rest of the time.

Many Rain Pools by thecourtyard, on Flickr

However, a set of pools and a cistern that collect rainwater were fully functional.

Water Drain in Parking Lot by thecourtyard, on Flickr

The garden motif continues out into the parking lot, where the concrete drains are stamped with leaves and twigs.

Plaza Outside Skate Park by thecourtyard, on Flickr

Between the rain garden and the skate park is a little plaza with a bench, giving kids a comfortable, dignified place to sit and wait for a ride.

The architects were very concerned about giving park visitors places to sit. I was impressed by how many seating areas there are, and for different activities:

The Pier by thecourtyard, on Flickr

There's a "pier," set in the trees and overlooking the rain garden. This is the most secluded space in the park. Depending on how concerned you are about crime, it's either a quiet refuge from the outside world, or a hideout for illicit activities. Hopefully the park is busy enough to keep this area safe.

Spectator Seating by thecourtyard, on Flickr

There are two rows of spectator seating, one each facing the skate park and the soccer field (at left).

Bar Area by thecourtyard, on Flickr

There's also a "cafe," which has a bar and stools for eating. This space gives people a dedicated place to eat. There are trash cans, so the soccer field and skate park aren't littered with food wrappers. The views from here are pretty exciting.

Skating 1 by thecourtyard, on Flickr

There are three concrete structures framing the skate park. They hold the cafe, a storage/maintenance shed and a manager's office. They're simple but attractive, helping to define discreet areas within the park as a whole without standing out.

Skate Park Rules by thecourtyard, on Flickr

The manager's office isn't always staffed, but a list of posted rules is visible for all users. It's a good sign that the parks authority feels comfortable leaving the space unattended, because it suggests that visitors are taking care of the place.

Skating 7 by thecourtyard, on Flickr

And they are. The park is clean and the skaters were friendly to each other and to me when I asked to take pictures of them. There were a couple of groups there ranging from high school age to a little kid with his parents, and everyone got along fine.

The Only Graffiti I Saw At Powhatan Springs by thecourtyard, on Flickr

The only vandalism I found at Powhatan Springs was a little bit of marker scribble in the cafe area. That's impressive, especially considering that a recently-opened skate park in Howard County was soon covered in graffiti, though officials there decided to keep it as a form of "urban art." I think it's great if a community decides to embrace graffiti at their skate park, as the two are often misunderstood forms of artistic expression. But it's also great if the users of a skate park can respect a prohibition against graffiti and still take care of the space they're given.

As skateboarding becomes more popular, the need increases for more skate parks. However, many communities are hesitant to give skaters a chunk of the public realm, fearful of noise, crowds and crime. Powhatan Springs Park shows that you can give skaters a home without scaring off other users. It's an example that more places should follow.


The best urbanist April Fool's jokes

We had a lot of fun entertaining you with some April Fool's joke posts yesterday. Here were some of our favorites from elsewhere on the Web:

Image by Steve Offutt.

Google adds "skateboard directions": A new Google feature directs skateboard users around the region, including on new skateboard lanes. But Montgomery County isn't pleased with the influx of skaters, and the ICC threw Google for a loop. (JUTP)

Wells "outraged": Tommy Wells and WTOP got into the spirit of our first joke of the morning. Wells told WTOP that he was "outraged" to find out he had requested a "fully-loaded" bicycle at taxpayer expense, but that he won't hold a hearing because of a conflict of interest.

WMATA adds fees: WMATA announced a series of budget-closing proposals including "peak of the off peak," charges for using elevators and seats, charges for posting negative things online including at Greater Greater Washington, and a Clear-like program to get out of bag searches after paying a fee. (DC Area Transit Zone)

New Gaithersburg Heights: The blogger behind New Columbia Heights moved to Gaithersburg, learned to walk a dog while driving an SUV, and inaugurated a new feature, Chili's of the Day.

We want 3-D! Wheaton residents are outraged that a proposed plaza for Wheaton looks like a Sketchup model, and started a group "3-DIMBY" to push for a more 3-dimensional plan. (JUTP)

Too many ped-on-ped crashes: The New York DOT was alarmed to discover a high frequency of pedestrian-on-pedestrian crashes. Small children even get into such crashes intentionally. Fortunately, there are very few injuries. (Transportation Nation)

Planjokizen: Ben & Jerry's adds a new flavor, Janette Sadik-Pecan ... LA will add car racks to its buses ... After many Republican governors rejected high-speed rail money, Ray LaHood spent the $2.4 billion on a huge party in Las Vegas. (Planetizen)

Public spaces get better: The Project for Public Spaces, which always does great news coverage at the start of April, revealed that Brooklyn's Prospect Park West will new get new kayak lanes, Arlington, Texas will train riders to use ESP to find out when their bus is coming, a new iPhone app helps starchitects not listen to public input, and a newly-unveiled plan would solve New York congestion by replacing most of Manhattan with freeways. Once upon a time, that last one was not a joke.

Public Spaces

Overregulation of Silver Spring plaza harms vibrancy

Urban spaces thrive on spontaneity. We might want to impose rules on a park or plaza to make it seem safer or more pristine, but excessive regulations could kill the vibrancy that people go there for. Sometimes, we have to let people police themselves.

Veterans Plaza in downtown Silver Spring. Photo by author.

Millions of dollars of public and private funding have gone into downtown Silver Spring over the past ten years, bringing with it new businesses, new residents and no shortage of programmed events, from an annual documentary film festival to weekly concerts on Ellsworth Drive.

But the most invigorating scenes I've witnessed here were largely spontaneous: Hare Krishnas gathering on Ellsworth Drive; a weekly drum circle; skateboarders doing tricks before a crowd. In recent weeks, I've seen all three take place within the new Veterans Plaza at the same time.

And a funny thing happened: people got along, setting norms for how they and other users should share the space, and enjoyed themselves. That's possible in a safe, well-designed urban space like Veterans Plaza.

Reemberto Rodriguez, director of the Silver Spring Regional Services Center, understands this. He's been tirelessly working to help organize activities in Veterans Plaza, both in meetings and on his blog. "No government initiative can do this. No institution or organization can be expected to solely lead the charge," he writes. "This is something that must grow organically, from within the community, for the community, by the community."

Over 70 attended a barbeque at the Woodside skate spot last weekend. Photo by author.
Yet his goodwill is shot by County Executive Ike Leggett's decision to boot skaters out of Veterans Plaza and into the newly-opened Woodside skate spot, located in a quiet residential neighborhood several blocks away. Neighbors are already complaining about noise, trash, and misbehavior, while skaters say the space is far too small for them to use, with over fifty kids there on a normal afternoon.

Meanwhile, the Regional Services Center hasn't really made a case for the ban, only talking to skaters protesting the ban after after it took effect. I spoke to Gwen Haney of the Regional Services Center, who told me that skateboarding "damages" the concrete covering the ice rink, yet last week I saw a concert in the same space with a big, heavy stage and multiple SUVs parked behind it. Couldn't a 3,000-pound truck create more damage than a kid with a piece of wood?

Haney also told me that she "heard the thumps" of skaters in the plaza and was annoyed. But that noise is easily drowned out by rush hour traffic, idling trucks, passing trains, planes flying overhead, sirens, the screams of young children, and loud music from live concerts. This isn't a library, it's a plaza in the middle of an urban area. Noise is to be expected.

And even Rodriguez' own statement on the decision insists that there's no way to "consistently and successfully [regulate]" skateboarding in the plaza. Yet I've seen a security guard hustling eight-year-olds with rollerblades out of the plaza, and cops regularly patrol the space. It appears that regulation is possible, so why isn't the county willing to consider it?

Though there's been a lot of talk about letting spontaneity rule in Veterans Plaza, Montgomery County has firmly led the charge on how this public space is being used. It's a very suburban response: if we don't like something, we'll send it somewhere else. While it hasn't necessarily made the plaza a less vibrant place - as Cavan Wilk pointed out yesterday, people continue to flock there - it sets a bad precedent for dealing with future conflicts in the space.

Rodriguez talks to police officers who confiscated two teens' skateboards
after a meeting last month. Photo by Chip Py.

The great challenge of Veterans Plaza, its predecessor "the Turf," or any urban public space is that people will do things in it you do not like, and we still have to accommodate them. This area is vibrant, sometimes messy. Of course, no one wants to see people getting hurt or robbed there. But concerns about crime shouldn't prompt us to try and control how our public spaces are used.

Ever since the revitalization of downtown Silver Spring began, I've had to defend it from people who complain that it feels "fake," "sterile," or "commercialized." As I always say, "the buildings are fake, but the people are real." Public spaces like Veterans Plaza allow us to create our own culture, drawing people who aren't interested in places like Bethesda and Clarendon where redevelopment has made them less diverse, not more so.

To me, skaters are a representation of Silver Spring's local culture. In downtown Silver Spring, skaters from affluent Chevy Chase and Kensington rub elbows with skaters from poor Langley Park and Petworth. Like the filmmakers who come here for the SilverDocs festival each summer, our skaters have built a pastime for themselves and those who watch them. The skaters I've met are smart, well-spoken and trying to become engaged in the community, which sounds right in line with Silver Spring's history of liberal activism.

Yet County Executive Ike Leggett's sent a message to them, and to all of us, that it's not worth fighting for something you care about. Those in charge won't listen to you, and they won't give you good excuses, either.

A good square is a democracy - it gives people a place to call their own, but hopefully gives them a conscience about how their actions affect others. Users of Veterans Plaza deserve a chance to show they can take care of it. So far, they haven't been given one.

Public Spaces

Veterans' Plaza in Silver Spring worthy of The Turf's legacy

Last week, I had a chance to walk around Veterans' Plaza, the new small urban park that replaced The Turf at the corner of Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street in downtown Silver Spring. I saw an array of benches, trees, unprogrammed space, and an amphitheater. Because of its simple layout and effective amenities, it will be even more successful than its celebrated predecessor.

Just like The Turf, Veterans' Plaza has all the right ingredients for a successful urban park. When one enters the park from the corner, there is a row of simple benches that are parallel to each other.

The new park has young trees that provide valuable shade. The orientation of the benches contributes to the social atmosphere of the park. The benches accommodate larger groups since they are long and face each other. They are also big enough so that strangers don't feel awkward sitting on the same bench.

Short public benches often end up being occupied by one person because strangers feel apprehensive about sitting close to someone they don't intend conversing with. Fewer people end up using the park. The whole park suffers since there are fewer eyes on the street.

The southwestern corner of Veterans Plaza has an amphitheater that will double as an ice skating rink during winter:

The photo was taken in the evening during a free outdoor concert. The corner of Ellsworth and Fenton is in the background. The steps provide the audience seating for the concert.

When designing good urban places, architects and advocates often use the term "sense of place." On a city street, sense of place refers to the positive feeling a pedestrian gets from being in a defined human-scale space. The space is delineated by consistent rows of buildings that come up to the sidewalk (or just behind the sidewalk in the L'Enfant City).

A small urban park's sense of place is bolstered by its clear boundaries with the rest of the urban fabric and the consistent row of buildings that are visible across the street. Veterans' Plaza has an excellent sense of place. The amphitheater takes advantage of the topography and has a retaining wall behind it. The new Silver Spring Civic Center provides a clear human-scaled boundary on the east side of the park. The shops across Fenton Street and Ellsworth Drive provide a similar effect as the buildings surrounding McPherson Square.

Veterans' Plaza has received some minor criticism. Montgomery County Planning Director Rollin Stanley said:

"The new space will, by virtue of its location and the attraction of the shops on Ellsworth, be successful. Already, crowds are gathering to see the programmed events. All that's missing is the spontaneity, the creative interpretation of the space that the turf generated. Frankly put, it is over designed.
When I was walking around, I observed that the layout of the park was accommodating to both concert-goers and regular social interaction. The park's internal space had some temporary overprogramming. The temporary stage and tables made sense in the context of an organized free concert. Without the temporary tables and stage, I can see the otherwise unprogrammed space providing a good canvas for spontaneous social interaction. The designers of Veterans' Plaza embraced the primary lesson of The Turf: less is more. I was skeptical that the new park would be as successful as The Turf. I was concerned that the designers would overdesign the public space and try too hard to inflict their "vision" of how people should use public space. Rollin Stanley is correct that the most successful small urban parks tend to have ample unprogrammed space. They're centers for informal social gatherings. While The Turf was a celebrated urban park, it is not the only template.

I take my hat off to Montgomery County for the success of the design of Veterans' Plaza in downtown Silver Spring. The Turf was not an easy act to follow and it was far from inevitable that its successor would be as much of a civic asset. I have said many times over the past two years that we need to learn from the mistakes of the recent past while embracing the successes that were cast aside and forgotten in the same time frame. The designers of Veterans' Plaza ignored the temptation to make it a monument to their own greatness like a starchitect would. Instead, it serves as a monument to the vitality of Silver Spring.

Public Spaces

Urbanism comes in many shapes and colors

Why does a proposal for a sidewalk cafe generally draw widespread praise, but a suggestion to use public space for skateboarding engender scorn? Is there really something better about dining versus skating, or is it simply that younger, poorer, and/or more minority residents skateboard, whereas eating at an outdoor cafe is beloved by wealthier, whiter, and older people?

Brooklyn's Fulton Mall. Photo by Sean_Marshall on Flickr.

Both are activities that take up some public space, generate some noise, and provide enjoyment to those participating. Yet most sidewalk cafes are uncontroversial and even eagerly welcomed by nearly all, yet when Dan Reed mentioned yesterday how skaters were starting to use the new Silver Spring plaza, several commenters advocated banning all skaters from the face of the earth.

An interesting analogue is Brooklyn's Fulton Mall. This is a pedestrian-only street lined with retail and atop a number of transit lines. Yet when I first went there, my first reaction was that it seemed run down or blighted. But it turns out that Fulton Mall is "by some measures the third most financially successful commercial street in the country, with ground floor rents commanding over $200 a square foot," Daniel Nairn notes in his review of a new book on Fulton Mall.

Why the disconnect? How can an extremely high-value retail corridor look so poor? To a large extent, it's because black people shop there, and people with a wide variety of income levels. As a result, the stores resemble those we're used to seeing on commercial streets in poor neighborhoods.

Daniel writes,

The authors suggest that the perpetual calls to "revitalize" Fulton may be more situated in particular cultural values than anchored to actual numbers.

"Fulton Mall continued to be judged not by the literal value of the goods sold but by the cultural value that the mainstream applied to them, thus trapping its public image as a failure. Given these terms, what could success look like?"

Rosten Woo surmises that the real motivation behind the various revitalization schemes has not been to create a more successful retail environment, but rather to create a public amenity attractive to the new affluent white residents moving in to the brownstones and condos around it.

There are other aspects of Fulton Mall that everyone agrees are problematic. For example, there are no benches, and many of the upper floors of the buildings are entirely vacant. Historic buildings have garish facades covering up their beautiful detailing. However, the street has many small, independent shops, good ground floor permeability, some street trees, and excellent transit.

We need to avoid the tendency to assume that good urbanism only looks like whatever we like. Good urbanism is about creating places that many people want to go, where they are safe, where there are activities, and where they don't have to travel long distances or be forced to use automobiles to satisfy life's everyday needs.

If those people are black teenagers and they want to roll around on little boards, they should be accommodated just as much as if they're 30-something white couples with strollers who want to pop into a baby boutique. That assumes that the people in question aren't committing crimes, but as Dan has noted, skateboarding gives many teens something to do that doesn't involve mischief.

We see a similar dynamic in the debates about bars or dog parks. Bars generally appeal to younger people, and some older residents share their fists at the proliferation of bars. There needs to be a balance between accommodating social gathering and not creating too much noise too late at night or creating magnets for crime. Dog parks appeal to dog owners, of course, and likewise there needs to be a balance between letting dogs get exercise and not having too much barking too late at night, or poop that doesn't get cleaned up, or other side effects.

Cafes and skating likewise create some side effects (trash that can attract rodents for cafes, for example), but bars, dog parks, summer outdoor movies, playgrounds, cafes, and skate areas are all ways groups of people can and should utilize our public spaces. And all, whether skating kids of any color, seniors, parents, recent college grads who like to drink, dog owners, or anyone else, are entitled to have some public space for their enjoyment.

Update: To clarify, I'm not arguing that skateboarding should be encouraged or even allowed in every public space, just like dog exercise or picnicking or softball should not be accommodated in every public space. However, some of yesterday's comments leaned more toward "skateboarding is an evil that should be stamped out," instead of "skateboarders should get their own skate park in Silver Spring so they don't need to use the plaza." Each public space can accommodate a different set of activities, but communities should design their mix of public spaces to provide opportunities for the full range of uses residents would like to make of their spaces.

Public Spaces

Silver Spring plaza instantly becomes de facto skatepark

Fresh off its inaugural weekend, the new Veterans Plaza in downtown Silver Spring appears to be a success, mobbed with people despite the ongoing heat wave. But residents who protested a deal giving much of the adjacent Civic Building to Round House Theatre might be equally surprised to find their new town square's become a de facto skatepark.

Designed by Boston-based architecture firm Machado and Silvetti Associates, the building and adjoining plaza put a fresh, modern face on two very traditional functions: a community hall and town square.

On a visit Saturday evening, it's clear that Silver Spring residents have taken to the space as they had to "the Turf" before it was ripped up in 2008 to make room for the plaza.

Instead of plastic grass, people lounge on fresh sod covering the wide steps that lead down from Fenton Street. I saw couples and friends alike eating on concrete benches with wooden slats matching the Civic Building's cladding, and walking down an allée of nice, leafy trees. Little kids run across the ice rink with its striking canopy just as they did on "the Turf" five years ago. (Of course, the rink has been decked over for the summer months.)

Veterans' Plaza At NightVeterans' Field At Night
Left: Veterans Plaza today. Right: "The Turf" in 2006.

Up on an elevated walkway between Fenton Street and the Whole Foods parking lot, a row of shoppers-turned-spectators admire the whole scene. Their eyes are fixed on the Civic Building, where a dozen teenage boys are making the skatepark Silver Spring has yet to give them. They line up in the wide portico holding their skateboards, taking turns as they did jumps off a couple of steps a hundred feet away.

"Looks like they've already turned it into a skatepark," I hear a middle-aged couple grumble as they walk past.

One Sweet Jump
Skaters line up to do tricks in the plaza and spectators gather to watch.

A block away on Ellsworth Drive, it's business as usual: people are crowded around a stage for the weekly summer concert series, and a security guard is lecturing a kid on rollerblades. Except ten minutes later, I see him in Veterans Plaza, making a slalom course out of a line of benches.

The Downtown Silver Spring complex on Ellsworth Drive has always had a tortured relationship with skaters, who flock to the street despite being harassed by security guards. Are they directing skaters off their property and into the public plaza? If so, would Montgomery County kick them out as well?

"Definitively an issue," writes Reemberto Rodriguez, director of the Silver Spring Regional Services Center, in an e-mail. "It is a balancing act between how to be welcoming of all activity that brings the Plaza alive with the charge to keep it clean, safe, and in good condition." He notes that he's seen a "very positive reception" to skaters from other people in the plaza.

Looking Back Towards Ellsworth
Looking south through the plaza towards Ellsworth Drive.

The need for a skatepark in downtown Silver Spring has been known for years. Kids are often kicked out of otherwise-unused pocket parks and on Ellsworth Drive and elsewhere, though planning for a temporary skate spot in Woodside Park is underway. It's not surprising that they've taken to Veterans Plaza with their skateboards. The question is how they'll get along with everyone else who'd like to use the space and how to handle potential conflicts between them.

On his blog, Rodriguez has drafted a "code of conduct" for the plaza - what he calls a "statement of our desires, expectations, and commitment for public behavior." He's looking for suggestions from the community to make it better.

For now, at least, the county wants to make everyone welcome in Veterans Plaza. "I am in conversation with the skaters—and many others—to see that we do this in a way that is respectful of all," writes Rodriguez.

Public Spaces

Skaters, planners discuss Silver Spring's Woodside Park

Last Friday, five local skaters met with a designer and staff from the county Department of Parks to discuss building a temporary skate spot at Woodside Park in Downtown Silver Spring. Everyone hopes it'll be open by this summer, but concerns remain about how other park users will interact with the facility.

The proposed skate spot would be located on the north side of the park located at Georgia Avenue and Spring Street, in a clearing between the gym and the basketball courts. It's about 65 feet wide and 56 feet long, or about 4,000 square feet. It's next to an existing set of stairs that skaters already do tricks on, affectionately called Big Four.

Current proposed Woodside Skate Spot plan.

Plans for the skate spot, shown above, would contain several modular pieces like a pyramid, a "fun box" or low shelf, and a quarter-pipe that would be dropped into a concrete slab. The pieces would be arranged around a new, ornamental tree. Planners envision ledges around the tree for sitting and a short ramp for doing tricks on. They say the tree's a way to make the skate spot look more attractive.

Early drawing of the Woodside Park skate spot with the central tree.
"We want it to look inviting to a mother pushing a stroller," said staff member Ching-Fang Chen. "That way, the neighborhood will be more open to it."

But skaters worried it could be disruptive or even dangerous for those using the space. Keir Johnson, a skater who grew up in Silver Spring, explained the "flow" of skate parks: users will start at one end and build up speed to do a trick on the other before turning around and doing it again. The tree would block flow or potentially be a hazard if kids can't slow down before running into it. "It feels cramped," said Johnson.

"It looks like it was designed for prettiness," said Downtown resident Maryam Balbed, who began skating with her kids a year and a half ago and goes by the nickname Sk8ter Mom. "We have to design it for children's health and safety."

Aaron Spohn of Industry, California-based Spohn Ranch, the company contracted to build the modular pieces, agreed to take out the tree from their final design. Spohn shared catalogs of Spohn Ranch skate parks across the United States, including one in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for sailors stationed at the naval base there and their families.

Skaters regularly get chased out of otherwise unused Downtown plazas.
Skaters suggested other things that they'd like to see in the design. One was a combination ramp and stairs designed to look and feel like one you might see outside an office building, which could appeal to street skaters who now get chased off real-life versions of it across Downtown Silver Spring.

Johnson rattled off a list of things that local skaters like to use: ledges; a flat bar, a long, thin metal rod for grinding on; steps; a pyramid; a quarter-pipe, and a bank. "I think if we want to make the best use of the money and the space, we want things we're gonna use," he says. "If it has those five things in it, people will be psyched."

As a high school student in the 1990's, he managed East of Maui, a skate park on Ellsworth Drive that closed to make way for the Downtown redevelopment, where he and his friends ran camps and arranged skate demos. "I loved that place," says Johnson, who currently works as a field producer for reality TV shows. "It was a huge thing. It made Silver Spring very prominent."

Given the size and significance of East of Maui, it's unlikely that the Woodside skate spot could meet the need of Silver Spring skaters. Last fall, JUTP crunched a formula from Skaters for Public Skateparks that determines how large a skatepark needs to be based on an area's population. We estimated that approximiately 900 people in Silver Spring would use one on a regular basis, requiring a park nearly three acres in size.

Citing those figures, Sk8ter Mom worried that the Woodside skate spot could be overwhelmed. "This is like throwing a sandwich into a hungry crowd," she says. "All the little kids who don't go downtown, their parents are gonna bring them here."

The skate spot will cost approximately $69,000 to fabricate and install the modular pieces, according to project manager Ellen Masciocchi, in addition to the cost of laying the concrete slab, which is currently unknown. By comparison, planned parks in College Park and Clinton could cost $250,000 and $300,000, respectively, while a temporary skate spot built by police officers in Germantown cost only $1,000.

>Germantown Skate Spot
The Germantown skate spot.

If all goes well, construction could start on the skate spot this spring and it could open in time for Go Skateboarding Day on June 21. One year after the skate spot opens, the Parks Department will conduct a review, seeing how well it's used, how expensive it is to maintain, and how many complaints it has generated.

After that, they'll decide whether to keep the temporary park or start planning for a permanent one. Even then, a permanent skate spot won't be built until Woodside Park is scheduled for renovations, likely within the next seven to eight years.

Sk8ter Mom questioned how much sway the park's neighbors will have. While most in the adjacent Woodside Civic Association support the project, a handful of neighbors managed to stall the project last fall, while plans several years ago to build a larger skatepark on Fenton Street were scuttled by neighbors there. "How much power do we give the residents?" she asked. "They own their homes, but they don't own the park. Do they get to dictate this project?"

This is the second meeting that the Department of Parks has held with skaters about the project, and despite the lingering concerns, local skater and Blake High School student Christian was happy about getting results. "We got rid of the tree," he says. "We got a lot covered."

Fellow skater and high school student Alex felt similarly. "At least we got to put a say into what we want in it," he says.

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